Fanny Blankers-Koen (born 1918) was known as the "first queen of women's Olympics." She remains the first and only woman ever to win four gold medals at a single Olympics. When Blankers-Koen began her sports career, Norman Giller noted in The 1984 Olympic Handbook, "women's athletics had been something of a sideshow… . She, more than anybody, made women athletes worthy of respect and attention, with a series of stunning performances in the London Olympics."
Fanny Blankers-Koen was born Francina Elsje Koen, the daughter of a government inspector in the Dutch city of Amsterdam in 1918. Her talent in sports was evident from a very young age. Blankers-Koen came from an athletic family that encouraged her to swim, skate, and play tennis. When she was six, she joined a local sports club, where she became known as an excellent runner and swimmer. When Blankers-Koen was 14, her father encouraged her to specialize in track and field. In 1935, when she was 17, she told everyone, "I've made up my mind to go for sport." Blankers-Koen became a member of the Amsterdam Dames' Athletic Club, and rode her bicycle 18 miles each way from her home in Hoofdorp to the gymnasium. She did not have an outdoor track to train on, so she ran indoors, in the gymnasium hallway.
Blankers-Koen's first competition was in 1935, in a 200-meter race in Groningen. She did not place well at that meet, but within a month she beat the Dutch national champion in the 800-meters. At that meet, she met Jan Blankers, a talented track coach and former triple-jumper who had won an AAA scholarship in Britain. He was the track coach for the Dutch Olympic team, and he invited her to join the team. Strangely, although she was so talented in the 800-meters, this race, like other longer distances, was considered "too difficult" for women and was barred from the Olympic competition.
Blankers-Koen made her Olympic debut at age the age of 18 in Berlin, where she finished in a tie for sixth in the high jump and fifth in the 100 meter relay. For her, a highlight of the competition was meeting American athlete, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in Berlin.
In 1940 she married the Olympic track coach, Jan Blankers, and they had a son, Jan, the following year. Blankers-Koen continued to train, even through the oppressive Nazi occupation of Holland. Because of World War II, the Olympics were canceled in 1940 and 1944, and she was unable to enter international competitions. Nevertheless, she set world records in the high jump and the long jump at Dutch meets.
When Blankers-Koen gave birth to her daughter Fanneke, in 1945, she had been out of training for a while. Nevertheless, seven months later she ran in the European championships, where she won the 80-meter hurdles, ran the anchor leg for the Dutch women's team's victory in the 4 (100-meter relay, and came in fourth in the high jump. Just before the 1948 Olympics, she set a world record in the 100-meters, with a time of 11.5 seconds.
By the time the 1948 Olympic Games convened in London, Blankers-Koen was the world record holder in the 100 meter race, the hurdles, the high jump, and the long jump. She was also 30 years old and the mother of two children. People said that her age and motherhood would slow her down, and that she should be home taking care of her children instead of out running on the track. That kind of talk, she said, "was just the thing to rouse me," according to Len Johnson in theage.com, "to make me go out there and prove to them that, even if I was 30 years old and the mother of two children, I could still be a champion." She had been waiting 12 years to compete in the Olympics again, and she wasn't about to miss her chance. While Blankers-Koen was training for the Games, she wheeled a baby carriage to the Amsterdam stadium and parked it near the track, so she could watch her baby while she ran.
No one has collected statistics on how having children affects a woman's performance in sports and how many mothers have competed in the Olympics, but it is generally believed that Fanny Blankers-Koen is the only woman in Olympic track history to have won a gold medal after having more than one child, and the only woman with more than one child even to have been on an Olympic track-and-field team.
London Olympics, 1948
Like Babe Didrickson Zaharias, another famous female athlete, Blankers-Koen was skilled in more events than the official Olympic rules allowed an athlete to compete in, with world records in the 100-yard dash, the 80-meter hurdles, the long jump, the high jump, and two relay events. Official rules limited her to competing in three individual events, and she chose to run in the 100-meters, 200-meters, 80-meter hurdles, and to be a team member for the 4 (100-meter relay. Modestly, according to Bert Rosenthal in Nando.net, she said many years later at a Metropolitan Track Writers' lunch, "I didn't expect I would [win a gold] because there were other very good [competitors]. I said I hope to come in the finals."
She did much more than that. In all, Blankers-Koen competed 12 times in nine days—running heats to get into the final races, as well as the final races—and won every time. She won the 100 meters by three yards over Britain's Dorothy Manley on a wet track in 11.9 seconds. Afterward, she wanted to celebrate. According to Rosenthal, after the event her husband found her sitting on a sidewalk with other women competitors. "I said to him I would like to have a party," she said later. "He said, 'Oh no, you are going to bed. Tomorrow you have the hurdles.' I said 'I already have an Olympic gold medal."' Her husband won, and she went to bed.
The next day, she had a bad start in the 80-meter hurdles and caught up with the leader, 19-year-old Maureen Gardner of Great Britain, halfway through the race. Just as Blankers-Koen was about the take the lead, she hit a hurdle and staggered, as she said, "like a drunkard." The finish was so close that she didn't know whether or not she had won, and when the Olympic band began playing "God Save the King" she believed Gardner had won. But the band was only playing because King George VI had entered the stadium, and immediately afterward they played the Dutch national anthem to honor her gold medal win. She and Gardner had both run the race in the world record time of 11.2 seconds, but she had been declared the winner.
The tension of that race got to her, and just before she was scheduled to run the semifinal in the 200 meters, she was crying in the locker room, ready to drop out. She was exhausted and felt the pressure to win. She disliked the 200-meter race, an event that was being run by women for the first time in the Olympics, and she also missed her children. "I was having such a bad time," she said later. "I wanted to go back home to my children." Her husband told her, "If you don't want to run, it's all right. But I'm afraid you'll be sorry afterward." Blankers-Koen realized that all her life, all she had ever wanted to do was be the best. She decided to run.
Blankers-Koen won the semifinal in the Olympic record time of 24.3 seconds. Then, on another wet track, she won the final by 7 yards, in 24.4 seconds. She won her fourth gold medal in five days of running in the anchor leg of the 4 (100 relay for the Dutch team. When Blankers-Koen took the baton, her team was in third place, but she made up the huge deficit and caught Australia's Joyce King, who was in the lead, in the last two strides of the race.
Although Blankers-Koen was the world record holder in the high jump and long jump, she didn't compete in these events. "I didn't like the high jump," she said, "and the long jump almost coincided with a hurdles heat, and I preferred one gold medal to two silvers." If she had competed in the high jump and long jump, however, she would probably have won two more gold medals, since the winners in these events all won with distances that were far short of the world records—which had been set by Blankers-Koen.
After Her Olympic Wins
After her Olympic victories, people compared her to African-American athlete, Jesse Owens, who had stunned the Nazis by winning gold medals in four track events in the 1936 Berlin Games. When she returned to Amsterdam, her country treated her to a huge parade. Blankers-Koen, who rode next to her husband in an open coach pulled by four white horses, was amazed by all the excitement, and kept saying, "All I did was win some foot races."
Blankers-Koen became known as the "Flying Dutch Housewife" because people considered it unusual that a married woman and mother was a world-class athlete. "After her great success," wrote Janet Woolum in Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America, "the media played up her role as wife and mother, sometimes overshadowing her athletic achievements. However, the image they created of her as housewife/mother/athlete helped to dispel the myth that women would lose their femininity while competing in world class track and field races."
Running in the 1950 European championships, Blankers-Koen again won the 100-meters, 200-meters, and 80-meter hurdles, and won a second as a member of the Dutch relay team. When she was 34, Blankers-Koen wanted to compete in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Although she started the 80-meter hurdles, she was not able to qualify for the finals. She withdrew from the Games because of a boil on her leg that led to blood poisoning and severe illness. In 1955, she officially retired from competition at the age of 37. She coached others and was the manager of the Dutch team at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
During her almost-twenty-year career in sports, Blankers-Koen set 20 world records in seven events ranging from sprints to hurdles, long jump, high jump, and the pentathlon. No woman in the history of track has ever won as many national medals. In 1948, she was chosen as the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. In 1980, Blankers-Koen was inducted into the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame. In 1998, she was invited to New York to receive the Jesse Owens Award. Now in her eighties, Blankers-Koen still enjoys good health and athletic vigor. She plays tennis almost every day.
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Woolum, Janet Outstanding Women Athletes: Who They Are and How They Influenced Sports in America, Oryx Press, 1992.
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